Most duck hunters realize that ducks generally don’t live very long. From the occasional leg band, to seeing significant population fluctuations based on nesting conditions, it’s pretty easy to come up with an anecdote about the lifespan of ducks. But, How long do ducks really live? It’s a common question for Delta Waterfowl’s Dr. Chris Nicolai, and he says it all depends on where you start counting.
Duck lifespan from the nest
If you’re counting eggs, the average life expectancy would be a few days.
“Right now, a good nest success rate is .15,” Nicolai said. “So out of 100 eggs laid, only 15 hatch. In areas where there are no traps, nest success can be 0-5%.”
According to Delta Waterfowl, the vast majority of that egg destruction is predation, about 90%, with the rest due to flooding, weather events, etc. That 15% success rate shows just how big of an impact predators have on duck populations. which was discussed on the MeatEater Podcast episode “Ruth, The Dating App”.
But, life expectancy doesn’t improve much even once the eggs hatch, especially in areas that aren’t trapped and predators aren’t under control.
“From the time they are born until they can fly, the other half of them will die,” Nicolai said. “At best, only 7.5% of the eggs fly away from the pond they nested in, at best.”
Only 7.5% of eggs left as real live ducks after just a few months is tough, but once they reach flying age their survival rate from year one to two improves dramatically, compared to eggs and the chicks anyway. While these numbers may not be exact in any given year, the survival rate for mallard ducks is around 70% and for mallards around 60%.
So starting with 100 of each, you are left with 70 ducks and 60 chickens after the first year. The following year, you go to 49 ducks and 36 chickens. Since he’s now under 50 in both, that means half of each is dead, and he’s on average 2 years old for a duck, and not even 2 years old for a hen.
And while that’s the case for mallards, this also varies greatly by species, according to Dr. Nicolai. “Are they like mice or are they like an elephant,” Nicolai said. “A common eider is going to have a better average age than bluewings, because of the way they nest and populate. For example, 40% of the blue-winged teal live from one year to two years, but a blue-winged teal starts laying eggs at 11 months and lays 12 eggs. By contrast, about 90% of common eiders live from year one to year two, but don’t start nesting until they are 3 or 4 years old and probably only lay 6 eggs.”
And while the odds are stacked against them time and time again, things tend to get better as the ducks get older.
“Survival rates increase as ducks age,” Nicolai said. “They do better with age as they build a library of places where they can find fodder and safety. Then you get ‘super hens’ that really know how to produce more offspring.”
The result is certain ducks that survive year after year.
What breeds of ducks live the longest?
According to the US Geological Survey, these ducks below are the oldest hunter-taken ducks of each species.
- Mallard: 27 years 07 months
- Black Duck: 26 years, 5 months
- Blue-winged Teal: 23 years, 3 months (ringed in Saskatchewan and shot in Cuba)
- Redhead: 22 years, 7 months
- Wood Duck: 22 years, 6 months
- Northern Pintail: 22 years, 3 months
- Wigeon: 20 years 11 months
- Ring-necked duck: 20 years 5 months
- Green-winged Teal: 20 years 3 months
So what kills adult ducks?
Once they are able to migrate, humans become the main predator of the ducks. Hunters kill around 10 to 11 million ducks a year. With an estimated mainland population of around 45 million, that shows how effectively nesting repopulates mainland ducks.
What prolongs their lifespan is the creation of a library of safe places that provide them with food and shelter. When a duck finds a National Wildlife Refuge that is not open for hunting, it continues to use it for long periods of time.
Adult ducks are incredibly hardy outside of nesting season, so they don’t necessarily have a common way of death. Bald eagles, power lines, and weather events are mortality events that I have personally witnessed. During the nesting season, the red fox loves to target the hens in the nest. But, hunters account for the vast majority of adult duck deaths.